Some day my prints will come

29 June, 2007

The news that the police in Merseyside are allegedly fingerprinting those who have been caught selling alcohol

to under-18s during the current test purchasing operation is of great concern.

Although breaches of the licensing law are indeed criminal offences, being contrary to a statute, there are numerous other offences which do not result in the perpetrators being "treated like criminals". Fingerprinting is a humiliating experience and for some could be traumatic in the extreme, particularly

if the error was due to inadvertence as opposed to a deliberate act.

What basis do the police have for taking this action? The Police & Criminal Evidence Act (PACE), as amended, would appear to permit fingerprints to be taken in respect of any "recordable offence". In the main, of course, fingerprints are taken either to eliminate or incriminate an individual in the course of an investigation, where that is relevant. But in the case of under-age sales, no such justification occurs, because the facts of the test purchase are already provable.

So it would appear that the ­requirement to give fingerprints is merely in order to establish an identity for future reference, and to add to the 6.5 million samples already on record on the central police computers.

There's a big civil liberties issue here, of course, and doubtless it will be taken up in due course. But the criminalisation of shop staff over this test purchasing campaign is real and is a cause for considerable concern.

Who to punish?

Throughout my long period of contact with the licensed retail sector, I am aware that the vast majority consider it important to guard against under-age sales. It has always been one of the key issues at seminars and training sessions, and the instruction to staff is made a priority. The publicity given to supermarket failures, particularly over the past couple of years, has dented the image of the off-sales sector, and it may be that there was some laxity and complacency creeping in which needed to be addressed. But in general there is a concentration on the need for constant checks, because the problem itself will not go away.

The reason for this is that ­teenage ­purchasers by no means see their ­attempts to buy alcohol as a criminal act. If they were apprehended, grilled and fingerprinted every time they attempted to buy alcohol under-age ("attempting" is also a specific criminal offence, incidentally, under the Licensing Act 2003) then we might see the message getting across more successfully. But the general policy is that the target should be the seller, not the buyer.

Why should alcohol sales be the only area of teenage activity where there is no government initiative to deter or prevent the perpetrators themselves? With drugs, knives, solvents and car crime there are campaigns which target the young people. Where is the campaign which criminalises fake ID, groups in shops, intimidation of shop staff, ­blatant attempts to buy alcohol and under-age consumption?

No offence ...

In fact, under-age consumption of ­alcohol is not illegal, except in certain ­licensed premises and designated places. So unlike theft or assault, we do not have an absolute offence here. Which is why the kids themselves - and their parents - think attempting to get served alcohol, when you are not quite old enough, is some sort of game or at least a rite of passage. I do not think for a moment they recognise that it could lead to a criminal record for the shop staff, with its potential effect on their credit rating, their mortgage and even their jobs.

What has also happened is that the changes in legislation - introduced successively by this government in particular - have moved the burden of proof to the licensee and his staff. All the police or Trading Standards have to show is that there was a sale and that the person was under-age.

They no longer have to show the sale was done "knowingly", nor do they have to demonstrate that the seller must have turned a blind eye. It is for the accused to convince the magistrates that there were legitimate mitigating circumstances. In the case of the "three strikes" law, they do not even have the defence of due diligence any more.

It is time that the government properly addressed the cultural and social

issues of drink and the young, not simply compelling the licensed trade to put its

collective finger in the dyke!

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